County faces some budget slashing

By Warren Cornwall

Herald Writer

As companies around the country tighten their belts, Snohomish County government is preparing to suck it in as well.

Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel this week warned that the county is on a trajectory that would put the general fund budget in a deficit in 2002.

In response, he has ordered his departments to prepare to cut spending to 4.5 percent below the cost of maintaining current service levels.

"Very simply, our expenses exceed our income," Drewel said in a prepared statement.

If budget cuts become a reality, it could mean fewer police on patrol, delayed planning for the county’s growth, and staff cuts at the county’s already crowded jail, county officials say.

"Every scenario is bad news, and they all involve cuts in patrol," Snohomish County Sheriff Rick Bart said.

Drewel and budget officials blame a slowing economy and rising costs for things such as electricity for the pending budget crunch, which defied their earlier forecasts.

Roger Neumaier, the county’s assistant finance director, cited a number of worrisome signs:

  • Falling interest rates have cut $1 million in expected revenues from investments the county makes.

  • Sales tax revenues fell below projections in the first quarter of 2001 and could remain lower in coming months.

  • Rising electricity prices could cost the county as much as $750,000 more in 2002.

    "When businesses run into tough times, they tighten up. And that’s what we’re doing," Neumaier said.

    Roughly half a percent of the cut is also designed to free up money to update the county’s computer systems, rather than reduce overall spending.

    Whether the cuts materialize remains to be seen.

    Drewel’s comments come more than four months before he is to send his 2002 budget proposal to the county council for approval.

    It’s also unclear whether the reductions would cut spending to below 2001 levels. The 4.5 percent reduction is based on predictions of how much it will cost in 2002 to keep the government services offered in 2001, a number adjusted upward for cost increases such as inflation. The 2001 general fund budget is around $152.6 million.

    But Drewel said the reductions could go deep enough to require staff cuts.

    Some departments would feel the pain more than others. That’s because some, like the sheriff and the jail, depend largely on the county’s general fund — the section of the overall budget targeted by Drewel.

    Other departments, such as public works, which oversees county road construction, draw on taxes and fees earmarked especially for such projects. The general fund this year accounts for roughly 30 percent of overall county spending.

    Planning and Development Services, the county’s chief planning department, depends on the general fund to pay for long-range planning, director Faith Lumsden said. If the cuts materialize, some projects could be slowed or stalled, she said.

    Bart, who has complained about a lack of new deputies in recent years, said he could have to cut as many as 17 of the 229 deputies. The department would likely ax its school resource program, which puts three officers in high schools, he said.

    Such cuts would likely lead to slower response times, or force deputies not to drive out to investigate some property crimes, he said.

    "It will probably take us longer to get to them (calls), and we may not get to some of them at all," Bart said.

    You can call Herald Writer Warren Cornwall at 425-339-3463 or send e-mail to cornwall@heraldnet.com.

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